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Groups Push Long-Term Efforts To Stop Drug Abuse

by Marc S. Reisch
August 11, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 32

Doping Agent
Credit: Anti-Doping Research
Erythropoietin is a blood oxygen enhancing hormone favored by endurance athletes.
Credit: Anti-Doping Research
Erythropoietin is a blood oxygen enhancing hormone favored by endurance athletes.

Several groups are trying their hand at setting up long-term monitoring programs to be sure athletes remain drug free. For some it has been a struggle.

Antidoping pioneer Don Catlin, now head of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Anti-Doping Research, wants athletes to voluntarily enroll in a program in which they would regularly submit blood and urine samples. Tests would establish baseline values for the athletes. "We could easily spot any perturbation and then do more aggressive testing," he says.

Such a program would allow athletes to prove that they compete without using performance-enhancing drugs. "Drug users tarnish the vast majority of athletes who are clean," says Catlin, who has been talking about setting up his program for years. Those who are caught wouldn't be sanctioned, only publicly dropped from the program. Catlin is still looking for funding to support the program.

Caroline K. Hatton, a consultant to Anti-Doping Research and former associate director of the Olympic Analytical Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, supports Catlin's testing concept. "Don's program is all carrot and no stick," she says. "His intent is to show athletes are clean and stable. He is not interested in punishing them."

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), a nonprofit organization that governs drug testing of elite athletes, is developing what it calls a "passport" program to document holders' drug-free status throughout their careers. First proposed in 2002, the program would require athletes to undergo regular blood testing for "selected parameters which indirectly reveal the effects of doping." WADA says it is still examining legal and disciplinary issues before it rolls out the program on a global basis.

A pilot program that WADA started earlier this year in partnership with the International Cycling Union failed when the partners got into a dispute over the cycling union's past commitment to doping enforcement. The two organizations had hoped to enroll athletes who compete in the drug-scandal-plagued Tour de France. WADA now wants to set up a pilot program with another sports governing body, and the cycling union says it will pursue its own "passport" program.

Separately, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which coordinates testing of U.S. Olympic athletes, is quietly setting up its own voluntary, long-term testing program. The program, known as Project Believe, initially involves 12 athletes who will provide blood samples twice per week. The program hasn't been formally announced yet, although USADA Chief Executive Officer Travis Tygart acknowledges it is getting under way.

Advocates such as Catlin think a successful monitoring program would help reinvigorate Olympic sports. "There always will be cheaters," he says, "but we don't need to have cheaters who win medals."

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